17TH OCTOBER 1917 AGE 20


This is an inscription about the pain of not being present when the person you love dies. To begin with I couldn't imagine what one earth it meant but a search of the In Memoriam columns in early twentieth-century local newspapers provided the context:

Could we have been there at the hour of your death
To have caught the last sigh of your fleeting breath,
Your last faint whisper we then should have heard
And breathed in your ear just one loving word.
Only those who have lost are able to tell
The pain of the heart at not saying farewell.

Twenty-year-old John Haworth's wife, Sarah, chose his inscription; not only could she not be with him when he died but she may never have known how he died and she could neither attend his funeral nor visit his grave. 'The pain of the heart at not saying farewell' must have made 'closure' very difficult.
Haworth had been married in Padiham Parish Church during a leave in July 1917, three months before his death on 17 October. On the 31st, the following appeared in the Burnley Express:

Haworth: In loving memory of Pte. John Ed. Haworth, East Lancashire Regiment, killed Oct. 17th. aged 20 years.
He marched away so bravely
His young head proudly held
His footsteps never faltered
His courage never failed.
From his sorrowing wife and sister Betsy 6, Back Guy Fold, Padiham

John Haworth had been 17 and 6 months when 'he marched away so bravely' with the 1st/5th Battalion on 10 September 1914, not just young but too young to serve abroad. The battalion joined the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in Egypt, its initial task to guard the Suez Canal. In May 1915 it got drawn into the Gallipoli Campaign, was withdrawn in January 1916, returned to Egypt, and then in March 1917 was sent back to Europe. Frederick Gibbon, the author of the 42nd Division History, of which the 1st/5th were a part, noted that:

"The voyage westward across the Mediterranean was made under conditions widely different from those of the outward journey of September 1914, when "the glory of youth glowed in the soul," and the glamour of the East and the call of the unknown had made their appeal to adventurous spirits. Familiarity with war had destroyed illusion and had robbed it of most of its romance."

In September 1917 the battalion was at Nieuport, marking a waterlogged, 6 km line from Nieuport to the sea. The ground was too flooded for either side ever to attack but both sides' artillery kept up a constant bombardment. I don't know how Haworth met his death but an entry in the Marquis du Ruvigny's biographical register of the war dead, which ran out of steam after he'd recorded about 25,000 biographies, says Haworth was killed in action. It also says:

"A letter written on behalf of three of his friends stated: 'He was one of the most popular lads in the company for his cheerfulness and willingness in every work he undertook, and he will be greatly missed by his comrades'."